It’s our third and final installment in our feature interview series with coach Dan John. In case you missed it, check out parts one and two for some classic Dan-John-isms:


Part 1: The State of the Fitness Union

Part 2: Lineage and Longevity


Things we’ve already covered include Dan’s thoughts on the future of the fitness industry, his beginnings as an athlete, and his thoughts on coaching for longevity. In this last section of our interview we are going to look at more of Dan’s philosophy on coaching – specifically the differences in coaching athletes versus non-athletes.


In the book Easy Strength, co-authored by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline, athletes are categorized into four “quadrants.”


  • Quadrant 1: Lots of activities, abilities, and skills, at a low-level. Basic physical education.
  • Quadrant 2: Lots of activities, abilities, and skills, at a much higher level. This is the domain of the “collision athlete” and competitive team sports.
  • Quadrant 3: Fewer activities, abilities, and skills, at a good level. This is where most people fall.
  • Quadrant 4: The domain of the professional athlete. Few things, or even just one thing, at crazy-high levels.


As Dan explains:


The bulk of your clients in your career are going to be fat-loss clients. In my book I call that Quadrant 3. They have two qualities, one is their way of eating and the other is exercise. That’s it.


The way of eating – what diet works? Every diet works. Every diet works perfectly. Every single diet. I don’t care what you’re doing. There’s nothing worse than when people say, “You know Dan, I’m on the paleo diet, but I’m worried because I only took 73,000mg of omega 3 today. Am I going to be fat?” You’ve got to be kidding me. It doesn’t matter. Compliance is number one. on the other side of the equation is inefficient exercise. A lot of people when they first start training make good progress…when you first decide to start exercising you jump on a bicycle and you ride around the neighborhood. You’re so inefficient because of your size and your bad skill set; it’s a fat loss exercise. Five years later you’re in spandex, you’ve got your little hat on, and your super-duper bicycle; it might not be a good exercise anymore.


You see that in clients all the time. That’s why it’s so important to go months at a time of punch-the-clock workouts, just coming in. So when you do ratchet up the intensity you ratchet up a person of a higher level of strength.


For the Quadrant 3 trainee, fitness is about compliance - compliance to the dietary guidelines that are chosen and compliance in showing up regularly for their workouts. For the Quadrant 2 athlete, the collision athlete, it’s about compromise. As Dan explained:


Quadrant 2 is the collision sports and the collision occupations. On that side it’s all about managing compromises. The NFL guy has to say, “Yeah I can get a squat up to 800 pounds and I can get my clean up to 400, but I’m also expected to be over there doing wind sprints, and making tackles, and there’s all these skills, and five hours of meetings.” Compromises. Compromises.


I think that’s the biggest mistake we’re making in the industry right now. For one thing, if you’re a Navy SEAL you’re a Navy SEAL. You don’t have to train like one – you are one. To be in the NFL you have to be so touched by God at conception that really there’s only so much I can do to help you. But what happens in the industry is people look at the NFL guys, you know, they’re all badass and have tattoos, and actually there’s some value in training like that. There are some things they do that have value. But they, the NFL guys, are making compromises constantly.


The problem is if you’re not in a Quadrant 2 occupation, you’re not a Navy SEAL, you’re not an NFL player, you’re not a fighter, you should be managing options, not compromises.


When it comes to Quadrant 3 clientele it’s all about compliance and simplicity. According to Dan it’s quite possible if you just stuck to kettlebells three days per week and followed a sensible nutrition plan, you could achieve a decent level of fitness and body composition. But, nutrition is key and not negotiable in Dan’s mind:


The mistake we make on the fat-loss side is whatever the diet is it’s options. Pick one and stick with it. Our job as coaches and as personal trainers – if I believe the food diary is most important, then we don’t start training until that food journal is fixed. If I have to take 45 minutes of an hour, and I charge $1500 an hour, and I take 45 minutes of that hour talking to you about all the missing foods, what am I telling you? I think it’s important.


From that point on it becomes managing options. Most people will never be Quadrant 2 or Quadrant 4 athletes, so they need to decide what they actually do want to accomplish and focus on. Essential to that is a trainer’s job of managing expectations:


I have this thing I always talk about in my workshops, it’s called Point B. I love working with elite athletes because elite athletes always know where they’re going. They are clueless about Point A.


So I’m an athlete, I always want point B. My job as a strength coach is to come in and say, “You don’t have a full squat pattern. I don’t care if you can half-squat 500 with your knees together, I want you to have a true squat pattern.” So with this elite athlete we find out you’re not mobile enough, you’re not flexible enough.


Most people know exactly where they are – their point A. Edna says, “I feel fat, my husband won’t touch me, I hate who I am.” But their problem is then they pull out a magazine, the cover of People Magazine, and say I want to look like Courtney Cox or one of those sisters who filmed their sexual activities.


My elite athlete wants to get to Point B, but they don’t know where Point A is. The average person knows exactly where they are. But their Point B is Point V! Are you crazy?


So this former athlete comes in and says, “I want to look the way I looked in college.” Oh, in college? When someone else made you three meals a day and you had seven coaches. Oh, all that self-discipline you had with all those coaches telling you what to do.


So you’ve got this former college cheerleader who put on 40 pounds. She says, “I want a program that in two weeks I look like I looked my freshman year in college.” She hadn’t even hit secondary puberty yet. Her hips were this wide. Now she’s got three kids. The Q angle has changed! And so what happens is you’ve got this person whose vision is Point Z. Your job with someone who has high expectations is to get them back on Point A.


In the end, for most of the clientele that the average trainer or coach will service, it is about managing options and managing expectations. In other words, fitness, health, and longevity, which is what most clients will benefit most from, are achieved through balance – balance in our fitness, balance in our nutrition, balance in our lives.


Or, as better stated by one of Dan’s “coaches”:


When I was in second grade Sister Maria Assumpta walked to the board and put down four words, like a compass: work, rest, play, pray. And she said if you could keep those in balance in your life, you’d do okay.


Read Dan's article, an excerpt from his book -

Increasing the Deadlift for the Collision Sport Athlete.


Read parts one and two of our feature interview series with Dan:

Dan John, Part 1 - The State of the Fitness Union

Dan John, Part 2 - Lineage and Longevity


To follow Dan's workouts here on Breaking Muscle follow this link:

Strength & Conditioning Workouts from Dan John